“Sand Fall” by Neil Mosspark – A Well-Imagined Story with Fresh POV

51BZbJjHTNL SCORE: 2.55 out of 3

Sand Fall by NeilMosspark might be a bit of a controversial choice for me to review, but I promote indie authors who tell a story I like. Those who decide to read a book based on customer reviews on Amazon (and who doesn’t to some degree?), might take the mixed bag of reviews there as a reason to discount Sand Fall out of hand. But in my opinion, they’d be missing out. Before I discuss in detail the strengths and weaknesses of this book, though, let’s put it into a box, as we reviewers are so happy to do.

First of all, Sand Fall is science fiction – science fiction in the same way Enemy Mine is science fiction. This is NOT space opera. It is a very fun, imaginative take on surviving a hostile, foreign planet. There are a myriad of characters and points of view (more on this later), some of which are well-crafted and fresh. Some readers may find the setting a bit hackneyed. In many ways this is true. It is your prototypical, barely-hospitable, desert planet that so many sci-fi heroes must survive or escape. But Mosspark has woven in a thread of ancient and derelict technology (central to the plot) that lends his world an epic feel not usually achieved in science fiction.

The plot is linear and really doesn’t surprise. I was along for the ride, pretty sure of where I was going, but not knowing exactly HOW I was going to get there. It is this, and the unique eyes through which aspects of the story are told, which kept me reading.

Readability (2.0 out of 3.0)

  1. Typos – Numerous.
  2. Grammatical Errors – Plenty.
  3. Exposition – Straight-forward. There were a couple of noticeable breaks in point of view. I feel like the author may have been trying to force a bit too much into one book.
  4. Cliche phrasing – A bit, but let’s be honest. Sci-fi has a vocabulary and the author uses it.

Let me start off by saying Sand Fall would have scored much higher overall (closer to the maximum score of 3.0) had the copy been better. That said, outside of some flat dialogue, there was little, if anything, in Mosspark’s storytelling to distract me from the story itself, which presented me with enough uniqueness to pique my interest and hold it. The copy, however, was pretty bad. There were numerous typos, grammatical errors, and places where it felt as though the author was going to add something to the story but forgot, or perhaps it was there at one point and got deleted. Mosspark is aware of these shortcomings, and even promised readers he’d edit the book (or have someone else edit it) and upload a cleaner copy. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that yet. The story is worth the effort. I hope he does this.

Story (3.0 out of 3.0)

When I started reading Sand Fall, I was immediately drawn in by the story. Crash landing, good guys trying to survive in an alien and very hostile environment, mindless aliens, etc. Many of the plotlines felt familiar, but not in a bad way. They were all notes that came together in a pleasant-sounding but sometimes-muddled chord. There are good humans, bad humans, mindless aliens with voracious appetites, mind control, androids and derelict technology. There is a subtle thread of romance, the spectre of oppressing loneliness, and a yearning to belong. These are universal things which, I feel, should resonate with every reader.

Comparisons? Hmmm…as I noted earlier, there is an echo, albeit very superficial, of Enemy Mine. There are also similarities to Pitch Black, starring Vin Diesel. But I think these comparisons are like saying chocolate and caramel are the same because they are both candy. Neil Mosspark’s story stands on its own, and I quite liked it.

Characterization (2.3 out of 3.0)

Sand Fall is at once both an event story and a character story. In that regard, it is quite an endeavor. Sci-fi readers are a fickle bunch. Many couldn’t care less about the characters, as long as the event in the story is compelling. Others prefer round, well-developed protagonists to characters that exist merely to advance a plot. Some enjoy both. I think there is something for all three kinds of readers in Sand Fall.

There are a handful of well-crafted characters, some of them non-human, that are very intriguing. Clearly, the author spent time developing these characters’ very distinct voices and points of view. However, I feel there were several characters that did not merit having a POV in the story, and overall, there were just too many characters. It felt as if the author felt compelled to jump from POV to POV in order to give each character the play he felt they deserved. In my opinion, this is the real structural weakness in this book (as opposed to the superficial typos and rough copy). Bottom line, when the author took the time to develop a character, he did a really good job of it. Unfortunately the effort felt uneven, so the score here suffers some.

Je ne se quoi – (2.8 out of 3.0)

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the best measure of a book is how compelling it is. Does it make you think? Does it give you pleasure when reading? Do you find yourself “binge-reading”? I gave up several hours of sweet sleep to finish this book, and I’d do it again. I think Mosspark is a talented storyteller, and will give up more sleep in order to read his other books.

– Doug Wallace

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Book Review: The Amber Project by J. N. Chaney (@JNChaney)

amberproject        SCORE: 2.5 out of 3.0

The Amber Project by J.N. Chaney might be classified as YA Science Fiction, but it feels like it leans towards the older segment of that audience. As a result, it should appeal to both YA and general SciFi fans alike. It is a relatively quick read with a very linear plot (except for an occasional meta-textual flashback in the form of data recordings). If I were to try and describe the book I might do well to mash a number of post-apocalyptic novels together with elements from Half Life (the video game) and Orson Card’s Ender’s Game. Don’t get me wrong, the comparison to Card is in formula, not effect. I’m not saying Chaney’s story isn’t compelling, though. But let’s be honest, few authors write young characters as well as Card. All that said, The Amber Project was a fun read, and despite some minor quibbles with it, I will likely read the sequels, for if he does nothing else (and he does many good things in the book), Chaney does make me want to see what happens to the story’s main character, Terry.

Readability (2.3 out of 3.0)

  1. Typos – Few, if any, that I can remember.
  2. Grammatical Errors – Rare.
  3. Exposition – Straight-forward. There were no noticeable breaks in point of view. The use of meta-textual exposition and dialogue, in the form of data recordings and conversations between the adults in the story (mostly) reminded me of the meta-textual conversations between the adults in Ender’s Game. The similarities don’t stop there. Ender has Graff, Terry has his own teacher/mentor figure, though the relationship is nowhere near as deep as Card’s characters. More on these similarities below.
  4. Cliche phrasing – One must remember that much of the dialogue is between teenagers. While some of said dialogue can be hackneyed, I’d like to believe it was the author’s attempt at imitating a teenager’s speech. Having said that, I can imagine the author has improved in this area in future books.

Outside of the flat dialogue, there was little, if anything, in Chaney’s writing to distract me from the storyline, which presented me with enough uniqueness to pique my interest and hold it.

Story (2.8 out of 3.0)

When I started reading Chaney’s book, I was immediately reminded of Ender’s Game. There are kids being taken from their families, raised by their teachers, and trained as soldiers. Chaney’s kids are bio-engineered, though, which is a pretty interesting element, and of course, central to his story. Variant is a brutal antagonist, but the reader doesn’t understand what it is until very late in the story, and it doesn’t seem to be an intended plot reveal. It would have made so much more of the story make sense when the reader finally does learn what it is (and you will immediately see some of the comparisons it draws with the video game mentioned above).

While this story is post-apocalyptic on the surface, it feels more like a speculative fiction piece. I won’t reveal too much, but it is definitely different from all those other stories. And what makes it so different is the interesting and unique event that destroyed the world, and against which the protagonists struggle. It is part “event” story, part “world-building” story. As an “event” story, its strengths are found in exactly that, the event (which I shall not reveal here). As a “world-building” story, it’s strength are in the invention of a new world mutated by Variant. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I wasn’t quite as fond of the narrative elements focusing on the Mothers, a social and professional class of women in the underground settlement the protagonists are from.

Characterization (2.2 out of 3.0)

Most “event” stories suffer from poor characterization, and this is an area in which I feel Chaney’s story could be improved. At the end of the story, I really only cared about one character: Terry. If the others had been wiped out by some unexplained means, I wouldn’t have blinked twice. Terry is really the only memorable character, and then, only because he is experiencing an intriguing physical change and I want to see what that really is (though I have some ideas, I am excited to learn it as the author reveals it.)

POV is never broken in Chaney’s book, but his POV is never very deep, and the internal dialogue of his main characters is often predictable and formulaic. That said, I believe this was the author’s first book. I’m sure that aspect will improve in his next ventures. When I identified the book as an “event” book, I didn’t expect a lot of emphasis on the characters, as they are often just vehicles for the plot in that kind of story. But I have been surprised. Unfortunately this one was not one of those times.

Je ne se quoi – (2.7 out of 3.0)

The best measure of a book is how compelling it is. Does it make you think? Does it give you pleasure when reading? Do you find yourself “binge-reading”? I usually consume 3-4 books at a time. The biggest endorsement I can give for Chaney’s book is that I found myself skimping on reading time with those other titles so I could finish The Amber Project. Now I have to find time to read the sequels. Chances are I won’t have time. But chances are, I’ll make time.

– Doug Wallace

Book Review Methodology

book-reviews

2017 marks the beginning of a new Book Review Section of my website. I will read and review several books this year and feature reviews from guest writers as well. The methodology I will follow is quite simple. Each score (star system) is made up of four areas:

  1. Readability (up to 3 stars) – How distracting are the typos, grammatical errors, bad exposition, cliche phrases, etc. to my enjoyment of the story? How well does the story flow? A book will score solidly if my inner editor remains dormant during the read.
  2. Story (up to 3 stars) – Is it an Event Story? A Character Story? A World-building Story? Is the story interesting? Are the plot twists well-executed? Meaningful? Is the story believable?
  3. Characterization (up to 3 stars) – How well do I empathize with the characters. Do they resonate with me? Is the POV effective? Are their motives well-understood?
  4. Je ne se qu0i (up to 3 stars) – This is a category where as the reviewer, I get to score the book however I want to indiscriminately. Personal bias at its best.

Let’s do an example: Do Nanobots Dream of Molecular Sheep (made-up book)

  1. Readability Score – 2.2
  2. Story Score – 3
  3. Characterization Score – 2.5
  4. Je ne se quoi – 2.6

Overall score (simple average) – 2.6 out of 3, a very solid score.

While I will focus mostly on new and indie writers in genres that interest me, I will occasionally review work by established and traditionally-published authors. Good stories can be found everywhere. Finding them is a journey. Let’s share that journey together!

Good Writing is Like Good Sex – Foreplay (Part 1)

ForeplayMost writers know their story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that the part right before the end is called the climax. They know the climax is good. Their readers will like it. No, their readers will love it. But how do you bring your reader along to that most enjoyable moment of reading pleasure? Unfortunately, this is where most aspiring writers fall short. And by short, I mean they lose the reader’s interest before the first couple of sentences are through. In today’s world of soundbites, Tweets, and near instant gratification, grabbing the reader’s attention is hard enough. Holding it though? That sometimes feels impossible. So how does one grab the reader’s attention without the writing equivalent of dressing up like Elvis in flashy ’70s show costumes? Sure, that will garner some attention, and someone is bound to like that (not knocking you if that’s your thing), but it’s likely to turn off a lot of readers. So what’s the answer?

Perhaps it’s best to understand that good writing is a lot like good sex. How many of you would expect the desired results if you rushed headlong into things, skipping the beginning and the middle of a romantic encounter? (OK, please don’t answer that out loud). Although you may not always follow (or never have) the necessary steps, I imagine most of us have at least heard of them, even if they reside squarely in the realm of myth and legend. It’s the same with writing. The reader often needs to be brought along at just the right pace or interest (and momentum) is quickly lost, and your story only climbs to the peak of the reader’s mental slush pile. Foreplay to the rescue. Or in our case here, linguistic foreplay. But wait. Some of us can’t even get a potential partner to listen to the second half of our best pick-up line. Is this where the analogy between good writing and good sex breaks down? After all, as story tellers, we aren’t trying to draw attention to our writing hoping to pique someone’s interest like those racy magazine covers behind the plastic shields in the checkout lanes. Aren’t we, though?

The Opening

Perhaps the most over-touched part of any story is the opening. And yet readers are often left dissatisfied, unable to finish the page. Or if they do finish it, they merely go through the motions of reading, doing so out of some sense of obligation to the writer, or commitment to read to a certain page before giving up. When I was younger, my limit was fifty pages. It’s much shorter now. If the story doesn’t grab me in a meaningful way, I simply won’t waste my time. Some may claim that is a bit harsh, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on my fair share of great stories because of it.

I imagine this to be every author’s fear. So along comes someone selling the plot-enhancement pill called in medias res — in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle of an epic battle, or when your protagonist is in a perilous position, they say. You wouldn’t attempt that in a romantic encounter, would you? (again, don’t answer out loud). So why would we expect that to work well in writing? Doing so might leave both your partner and your reader pumping the brakes and screaming “Too much, too fast!” On the other hand, opening a story with a giant expository dump can have similar disastrous results. Nobody likes being dumped on. It’s the Goldilocks principle here. A story’s opening has to be just right. After all, a writer only has one chance to make that all-important first impression on the reader. The penny will never be shiny again.

Practice, practice, practice

I want to pause and clarify something: in medias res can work, if done well. But unlike sex, the intent matters almost as much as the execution. What is the writer trying to do? Is the story an event story where the characters are vehicles to tell about something really incredible that happened in the world? Or is it a character story, where the events and setting are backdrop to the internal drama of the human soul? Perhaps it’s none of these — a world-building story that seeks to explore a fantastic and implausible universe? Maybe it’s a little of all three? If an event story, how does the opening garner interest in the event? If a character story, does the opening successfully draw the reader toward the character and her motives? Does the opening to a world-building story inspire awe and wonder in the first few lines?

Mine didn’t. So I began to practice (and I still do, on Twitter with @iAuthor, who posts visual writing prompts.) I find that the character count on Twitter really helps sharpen the skill of writing openings. I also do notebook exercises. Here’s an example — a writing prompt I wrote several years ago:

“Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson.”

Morbid, I know. Ignore that and let’s take a look. Not too much given away at first. The reader knows a character’s name, and that he had inadvertently killed a female (woman or girl is still unknown), and in a seemingly violent manner. I finished the exercise by writing five different openings, all different, but using the same first line:

  1. Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. He’d have at least half an hour to make a better plan. Half an hour to make sure she didn’t die the next time.
  2. Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. Humans were so frail and so expensive. She was the third one this week. Mother was sure to be upset. She might even revoke his cloning privileges.
  3. Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. It was probably for the best, though. In her condition, she wouldn’t have survived the star jump anyway.
  4. Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. Nobody would miss her though. Especially among the Dhulani. The way she’d treated them…no Daks would be seen as a hero.
  5. Daks hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay in a growing pool of crimson. The blinding rage that had caused him to lose control cooled to a deepening regret. And fear. He burst into tears. What was he going to do now?

As you can see, some are better than others, but the point is to practice. Eventually, the elements of a good opening will fall into place naturally. I’m still hoping to attain that place of Nirvana. If we work at it, maybe we’ll see each other there, and we will have brought along a reader or two.

Next in the series: Foreplay (Part 2)

On the Doorstep of Fear (from Fire of the Fallen)

tallynsbow

Image in the Public Domain

“Tallyn’s side pack and steel bow lay several paces away on a rustic table near the fire at the center of the enemy’s makeshift forward camp. Her eyes darted back and forth between it and the twelve soldiers huddled around the fire, who were quietly waiting for the man with the hateful countenance to finish devouring a day-old portion of roasted horse meat. When he was done, and the last piece of gristle stripped from the bone, he peered across the camp at his captive.

Tallyn could tell the Kindrahken man wanted to kill her. She could see it in his deep blue eyes, which had turned dark with malice. But there was a look of confusion there too. And it was this confusion that gave Tallyn hope. For confusion lives on the doorstep of fear, and if her captors felt fear, she would know it.”

From Fire of the Fallen by Doug Wallace

Returning to the Dark (from Fire of the Fallen)

parchment

Image in Public Doman

“It had been four years, nine months, and twenty-one days since Tallyn last wielded the Dark. At least that’s what the marks on the small, tattered parchment she kept rolled up in her side pack said. She’d counted them this morning just like she did every morning. Some of them were so faded and smudged they were hard to make out, but Tallyn knew them well. She’d earned each and every one; a mark for every day she hadn’t sinned against Azurys. It hadn’t been easy. Putting magic behind her had been the most difficult thing Tallyn had ever done. Until today. Returning to the Dark made her feel like a beaten dog crawling back to its cruel master.”

From Fire of the Fallen by Doug Wallace

Value of an Arrow (from Fire of the Fallen)

 

arrowworth

Image in the Public Domain

“Do you suppose the value of a single arrow to be small? How much is your mother worth? Your brother? The little stable boy you fancy so much? Is it truly absurd to ask how to measure the worth of a living soul? I tell you this: it is measured by the number of arrows it takes to hew them down. So again, I ask: Do you suppose the value of an arrow to be small? — Pahrn of House Agath, Master Instructor to the Greymarks”

From Fire of the Fallen, by Doug Wallace

The Drahkenspire (from Fire of the Fallen)

spiremount

Image in the public domain

“When Brohm was a child he thought the Drahkenspire Mountains actually touched the sky. Piercing upward like daggers through a velvet blanket of forest green, their jagged, snow-capped peaks had loomed larger than life as the towering backdrop to his small farming village on the outskirts of Selvengard. He’d spent countless hours dreaming of climbing to the top of the highest peak, the one that looked like the pitted tip of a sword, and jumping off onto the pillowy soft clouds below him. What would it be like to walk on air? What would it be like to see the world from such a height, to look down on everyone, peasant and highborn alike? Brohm had wanted desperately to find out for so long.”

From Fire of the Fallen, by Doug Wallace